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Prime Time: Stretching summer keeps winter at bay

The maple trees in the yard have transformed into brilliant, flaming spectacles and the poplar are dropping their gold leaves to cushion the woodland paths. The oak trees have already unleashed a hailstorm of acorns, plopping off the deck, crunching underfoot. Now their oxblood leaves catch the afternoon sun.

Autumn in northern Minnesota has brought recent sunny, warm days, allowing us to hit the bike trails and enjoy the peak colors. The drifting leaves take me back to previous autumns and pleasant memories:

I recall one autumn, about 15 years ago, when our children were young. My husband came home one day with a used Winnebago LaShara he'd bought. At first I was not overly excited about purchasing a motor home, especially in the fall when it would sit through a long winter before we could use it in the spring. But that particular autumn - like this one -- was filled with warm, sunny days, even on the weekends. Summer clutched at the last leaves, refusing to let go. We loaded up the LaShara with four kayaks on the top and four bikes on the back, and hit the road like some 1990s yuppie version of the "Beverly Hillbillies."

That fall, we camped nearly every weekend on our quest to visit all of Minnesota's state parks. We visited Schoolcraft State Park and were the only campers in Scenic State Park one weekend in October. We visited McCarthy Beach State Park, Interstate and Father Hennipen. We camped in Wild River State Park and hiked its trails. We camped, biked, hiked and paddled at St. Croix State Park. Each weekend brought new stops, new trails.

Giving up weekends at home meant falling behind on our chores, but it also meant stretching the summer from September, when the kids and I went back to school, to early November. That winter was the shortest ever because of our weekend mini-vacations in the fall.

Last October, my husband and I took a bike trip to the East Coast. We left a sunny, clear Bemidji with fabulous fall colors and drove across northern Wisconsin's equally colorful wooded countryside, eager to see the ever-popular-among-leaf-peepers brilliant northeast foliage, but by the time we crossed into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, clouds had moved in and we set up camp in the rain. It poured all night and remained damp and overcast the next day. It rained as we crossed part of southern Ontario and emerged at Niagara Falls. The spray of the falls was barely noticeable with the mist and damp in the clouded air. We drove the full length of New York, west to east, in pounding rain.

Meanwhile, friends and relatives back in Minnesota let us know via cell phone calls and emails how lovely the weather was in northern Minnesota. Clear, they said, and sunny. In the 80s! We biked in Saratoga Springs between rain showers - and sometimes in the midst of them. We biked in southern Vermont in a heavy mist, drove north to Burlington, Vt., in a light rain, holed up in a motel room in a pounding downpour that lasted through the night and into the next morning.

Leaf peepers who had come to New England were, like us, sadly disappointed by the lack of cooperation on the part of the weather. We set out to bike in Burlington in a light rain -- even stopped to buy rain gear. But then the sun broke out when a 35-mph wind blew the clouds away and almost blew us off the causeway bike trail and into Lake Champlain. The next day, we biked the Franconia Notch in northern New Hampshire on a perfect fall day and picnicked in the shade of scarlet maples afterward.

Fortunately the rest of our bike trip was rain-free and we biked in Acadia National Park in a stiff wind but under a mostly sunny sky. From there we went on to Portland, Maine, biked on a frigid Sunday morning, rewarded ourselves with a lobster lunch and started our homeward journey. We completed our riding in southern New Hampshire on a sunny, warm afternoon.

With a long return drive ahead of us, I feared we might return to Bemidji having missed the Indian summer everyone back home had been boasting about, but we lucked out and returned to several more perfect fall days but with less color than this fall. Even with the fall beauty of the northeast, I would have felt short-changed had I completely missed autumn in northern Minnesota .

Last week's bike ride from Laporte to Walker and back along the Paul Bunyan trail was every bit as magnificent as other fall memories. With leaves the color of salmon, red wine, cocoa, cinnamon and wheat against a background of warm blue sky and evergreen, I could almost taste the colors.

I'll be ready for winter when it comes, but for now, I'll stretch each sun-filled October day into a mini-summer vacation.